When a drunken French colonial soldier called Pierre Antoine Dochenet attempted to kill two slaves in 1752, he committed a crime against property that brought the death penalty.
No white person has been executed for killing a black one in Louisiana since then. Let us not waste time considering whether race has been a major factor in determining who lives and who dies. There is no denying that it always has been, but that has not diminished the Legislature's enthusiasm for capital punishment. Neither has its ruinous expense, nor the wealth of expert opinion that it is no deterrent. We have argued the matter to death, and most everyone's position is entrenched. But passions run so high that it seems the debate will never run out of steam.
The latest salvos hardly qualify as debate, however. When the House Administration of Justice Committee convened Tuesday, it was not to consider pros and cons. This was state Attorney General Jeff Landry's show, and nobody had any doubts where he stands. Executions have been on hold in Louisiana for years now, and Landry is keen to see them resumed. The point of the exercise was to put pressure on legislators and clear the state death-row backlog, which currently stands at 72.
Landry says we could start dispatching murderers to their maker before the end of the year if only we had the will.
Or, rather, if only Gov. John Bel Edwards had the will. Edwards is cagey about his views, but is widely suspected of a Christian aversion to killing people. That may make him a wuss in Landry's book, but Edwards says he is just abiding by a law that will not allow the death house to be put back in business until the drugs required to dispatch the condemned become available again.
Although pharmaceutical companies have refused to provide the deadly so-called “cocktail” Louisiana favors for execution purposes, Landry pointed out that other states have had no trouble securing a supply, and 25 executions were carried out in the United States last year.
Louisiana, in any case, could easily compound its own drugs, he said. Besides, state law does not specify what drugs shall be used in executions, requiring only that the condemned shall be injected with a “substance or substances in a lethal quantity.” The state must have all manner of poisons to hand that would do the job admirably, according to Landry, but if injections won't work, he is all in favor of bringing back the electric chair or the gallows.
He has also called for firing squads, but has not so far broached the subject of hanging, drawing and quartering, although he does not come across as the squeamish type. But there is nothing Landry can do to increase our range of execution options unless he can persuade a legislator to file a bill, and none has so far stepped forward.
That the House hearing was an unabashed exercise in pro-capital punishment propaganda was obvious from the start, when Landry wheeled out a succession of murder victims' family members to bemoan the state's yearslong failure to carry out death sentences imposed by the courts. Since only the most depraved and sadistic killers are sent to death row, the stories the families had to tell were calculated the make the blood boil. It was hard at that moment to doubt that the perpetrators of such unspeakable crimes had forfeited any claim to mercy and should be put to death to relieve the anguish of victims' family members. But the merits of capital punishment need calmer reflection.
Landry also relied heavily on the testimony of Southern University law professor Michelle Ghetti, whose support for capital punishment may be colored by experience. She was hospitalized with wounds inflicted by her former husband John Battaglia, who later remarried and murdered two daughters he had with a second wife. Battaglia would still be alive if he killed his children in Louisiana, but he was convicted in Texas, where he was executed last year.
A few death penalty opponents did manage to get a word as the committee hearing dragged on, but it was clearly a waste of time. Bills to repeal the death penalty will occasionally clear committee, but that's as far it goes. Landry is evidently determined to agitate for more executions as long as he is in office, but let us not confuse this dog and pony show with serious debate.
Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.
Editor's note: This column has been corrected to correct an earlier version that mistakenly indicated Pierre Antoine Dochenet's attempts at murdering two slaves had been successful.